It must be important

Jessica and I have been blogging on the same day for well over a year now, and this has never once happened: we both wrote on the same thing. It would be more surprising if it weren’t for the inspiration: Edan Lepucki’s excellent piece for The Millions about what happens when a book doesn’t sell. It’s clear that this piece has struck a chord, and I have a feeling ours won’t be the last blog posts about it.

Normally, I’d have suggested that one of us write something new, especially because there isn’t much that Jessica and I disagree about here. But I think it’s worth hearing the anecdotes we both have to share, and I hope our experiences (along with Edan’s) serve as inspiration.

– M.

From Jessica:

Last week I met with a client whose move from west coast to east finally afforded us an opportunity to sit down face to face. He is a prodigiously talented writer whose historical novel I submitted to more than thirty houses. Although a few of the editors to whom I sent it tried to make a case for acquisition, the novel did not sell. I know literary fiction is always difficult to place, and I am acquainted with the challenges of the present market, but this novel was so gloriously written, so seamlessly researched, so peopled with terrific characters (not least a sympathetic, intelligent and interestingly flawed narrator) that its quiet-ish plot seemed a non-issue. The houses to which I submitted, however, did not agree, and while all editors were profligate in their praise, we came away with no offers. Inasmuch as rejection is something I am trained to take in stride, I still wanted to storm the meeting rooms, kick down the doors, rail against naysayers (see Miriam’s post re: poisonous  invective) and ideally, have the phrase “we just don’t know how to sell this” stricken from the language.  Needless to say, my recent meeting with my client was bittersweet, and we spent much of our time talking about his next book. Which is why I found Edan Lepucki’s piece in the Millions so affecting.

If you have had a book that has not sold, or even found representation, at what point do you, like Lepucki, consign it to a drawer? True, we live in an era in which self-publishing is on the rise, but both Lepucki and this particular client decided that for assorted reasons, this route is not for them. So although I tend to share clients’ Churchillian inclination to never, never, never give in, an approach that has served me well with literary novels and works in translation, sanity, pragmatism and big picture considerations of an author’s career can mean it’s time to move on.

From Michael:

In the past, we’ve blogged a bit about books we weren’t able to sell, and how much that frustrates us.  It does.  When I sign something up, I’m in love with it.  The kind of getting-married-lifetime-commitment-love that one usually saves for spouses or cats.  So if something doesn’t sell, I’m wounded.  Being the agent, I figure I experience about 15% of the wound, with the author holding on to the other 85%.  Though authors can be notorious over-sharers, I sometimes feel like they shut down when their book doesn’t sell, and I often don’t know what’s going on inside their heads.  So I was eager to read this piece over on The Millions by Edan Lepucki.

Her reaction, after dealing with the hurt and disappointment, is exactly the way I’d hope my clients would react: move right on to the next thing.  But move on with the knowledge gained from the process submitting the first book, learning from whatever helpful comments might have been offered.  I have an author who is now working on his second book.  The first didn’t sell.  We were bummed, to say the least, but he jumped into the second one having synthesized what all of the editors had to say (lucky for him, editors liked his book enough to provide lots of thoughts–rare these days).  Not only was he eager to get back to work, but he was eager to implement what he’d learned.  And though we haven’t gotten to the submission part of things yet, I know that we’re much better positioned to succeed this time around, all because he was able to both accept the rejection and embrace the criticism.  That combination is going to serve him very well.

10 Responses to It must be important

  1. Getting on with the next project is the key, I think. I have two books currently on the shelves with a royalties cheque due next month. A third is currently being edited and will be published in the Autumn, and I am currently submitting a fourth to agents (new genre my publishers don’t deal with)and at various stages of writing a fifth and sixth. So I have books in every stage of the process, and just move onto the next one if one of them disappoints for whatever reason.

    The way I see it, any manuscripts I have to give up on can be brought out again when a future work is so hugely successful that publishers are clamouring for books with my name on the cover.

    • The way I see it, any manuscripts I have to give up on can be brought out again when a future work is so hugely successful that publishers are clamouring for books with my name on the cover.

      That’s a great way to look at it! I imagine it’d also be satisfying in a smug way one might not want to admit aloud. And if you’ve gotten to that point of your career, it’s likely you’d be better equipped to fix any lingering issues and make the manuscript all the stronger for it.

  2. Kathleen shoop says:

    This has happened to me and until this past May my books were in the drawer of shame! But I self-published and since May 1 I’ve sold over 20,000 copies! The world has changed and lucky for me it has! It feels good to have a bit of control over that aspect of my career. Hopefully thing continue to be positive. Glad to see D and G is open to many different publishing configurations. Says a lot about the company.

  3. These types of posts are important, though. A lot of us aspiring writers, I think, focus only on getting the agent, and assume everything will just fall into place after that. If we worry about the process after getting the agent, it’s about our covers or promotions or whatnot. We don’t really (like to) consider that our agent still might not be able to sell our book, but we should. Accepting all the possible outcomes beforehand will better enable us to move on when/if things don’t go as we hoped.

  4. Hillsy says:

    Interesting article….and this – “The truth is, I want a reputable publishing house standing behind my book; I want them to tell you it’s good so that I don’t have to.” – is the best thing I’ve seen written about self-publishing.

    In answer to this question: “If you have had a book that has not sold, or even found representation, at what point do you, like Lepucki, consign it to a drawer?”….As a massive oversimplication I’d answer: Until the next book’s ready to roll out. But then again I have as much experience with the grind of publishing as Glenn Beck does with quantum mechanics.

    Moving on is key unless you want to go down with the ship. But I would say it’s easier to deal with rejection at certain stages, dependant greatly on the defences of confidence (both in your writing and in the people encouraging you) you’ve acquired and the feedback you’re getting. The later in the process you hit rejection the better I’d imagine (Unless you get through penning an outline and someone, rightly, points out that any plot where tinned food becomes sentient and world order collapses under the weight of tinned food rights issues is going to be panned, which would save you a lot of time). At least then you know that you’ve done most of it right.

  5. This post just broke my heart, in no small part because I’ve been through this experience too many times before — and after already publishing two reasonably well-liked books. You’d think it would get easier, but in many ways, for many reasons, it seems to have gotten harder. And it’s hard to move on after something like that, especially when you’ve had to sacrifice so much of what other people consider a normal life to carve out the time to write. My strategy recently has been to keep writing, even before the bad news comes, because if I don’t, I won’t be able to. So I send a manuscript off and try to forget it, while I start searching for the next project to fall in love with, even while knowing that love may be unrequited.

  6. Bryan says:

    I TOTALLY understand everything in this blog post. I hadn’t seen that article yet, either…

  7. Joanne Levy says:

    I’ve been through this a few times myself and have to be honest and say that I got to the point where I *hoped* my book would sell, but didn’t really believe it (and now that I have sold, still kind of don’t believe it – get back to me when it’s on the shelves next summer). For me, moving on was the only option, because I am determined to be a career author. If not with this book, then the next or the one after that.

  8. Giora says:

    Jessica, I fail to understand why you and your author and (and some of the editors) didn’t sit down and find a way to improve the plot. You says that the book was superb in many ways, but with a quiet (weak) storyline. A story line can always be improved with more spice.

    • TryThis Again says:

      I kind of wonder the same thing too. If someone can write beautifully, why can’t they write suspensefully, entertainingly also? Just go through the manuscript chapter by chapter: Is anything happening here? If not, can we just get rid of the whole chapter…or else, get something going in it?

      There are two beautifully written books I got really frustrated with: The Stone Diaries and Housekeeping…and (as I recall, it’s been a while), there was a noticeable paucity of dialogue…I remember what Yoko Ono said, as she transitioned from tosser of dried peas from paper bags onto linoleum, to vocal assaults upon microphones…she said: “I was dying to get back to my voice.”

      It’s like reading a “quiet” beautifully written book, you as the reader start dying to get back to voices, characters speaking – imperfectly, prosaically, in advance the plot type dialogue.

      Don’t know that this relates to the rejected manuscript in question. But I do have a definite preference for the “noisy” novel.

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